Looking into the dynamics of war poetry we can witness the socio-political and cultural background prevalent during the period of First World War. In the present research work we will also notice the circumstances during war and its effect on the society. Critics and scholars may argue that there can never be any positive aspect of war on the society. However, we need to think deeper on this issue because the situation of war occurs when it becomes inevitable. In the first few years of twentieth century humanity and prosperity was at the centre. There was a sudden growth in the middle class and it increased the moral and ethical human values along with economical values. Thus, we can also say that the sense of social security was very strong in the first decade of the twentieth century. Modernism was marked in literary circles and poets were in search of new taste and techniques. Some poets tried to reemphasize on the issues like imperialism and colonialism but it was not helpful. This can be one of the reasons that writers like Bernard Shaw and Kipling were discussed much in the society. Writers like H.G.Wells tried hard to explore new possibilities in field of science. When Germany was expanding it became clear that it was almost impossible to stop the colonial desires of Germany. This can be one of the reasons that scholars and critics consider 1914 as planned execution of the colonial powers. It was not all of a sudden but it was deeply rooted in 1870’s. we cannot forget Bismarck who was confident enough to show new military and political skills to the world. There were various reasons for the First World War and almost all the powerful countries tried to show their colonial desires directly or indirectly. One of the major reasons of the war was the conflict between France and Germany. Britishers were equally responsible for the war as they also tried to show their supremacy over the sea. In the mean time Belgium was attacked by Germany. And it paved way to English to interfere in the war. Many more political campaigns were organized and its effect was not limited only up to the battlefields. The period 1914 to 1918 changed the world scenario and many people were killed brutally. It was the period that witnessed the growth of militant nationalism. It also affected literature and science along with the society. During the period of war democracy seems to be suspended and the word nationalism was wrongly interpreted. When the war became over then threads of nationalism was beaded with the pearls of cosmopolitanism. It gave wings to the ideas of internationalism. The concept of totalitarianism was also valued after the war. The ideas of Marxism were also in progress. It was opening new threats to capitalism and thus, in this way the world was changing. There were chaos all around and poets decided to write upon such issues of war. Let us not be confused that war poetry evolved as new genre in literature. It was new because it appealed to human values and senses. There were few poets who also wrote on the issues of war with firsthand experience of war. They were both poets as well as military men. Before coming to the war poetry let us see few important aspects of literature prevailing during that period. In the field of literature romantic insights were not new and thus new taste and techniques were in demand. The ideas of imagism1 propounded by Ezra Pound were in practice in 1910. Several poets were influenced by war poetry. There were several poets who witnessed the First World War. It was considered initially that war was a subject of excitement and greetings and thus it should be celebrated. We have already seen that during seventeenth century and eighteenth century war was a subject of celebration. In restoration period also the concept of knighthood and war was a subject of celebration. During the time of Chaucer we have already seen that war was almost inevitable and there were several poems that celebrated war. In the very beginning during fourteenth century war was considered pious because it was the code of conduct of the society. Virtuous men were supposed to have excellent military skills. To fight for a noble cause was considered manly. In the twentieth century there was a sudden shift and people were made aware about the consequences of war. Poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and few others are considered as war poets. It is noteworthy to find that these war poets never considered war as noble. They had very bitter experiences of war. It is one of the reasons that they appealed for humanity and peace in most of their poems. Scholars and critics agree that the poems written by Wilfred Owen are subjective in nature. This can be one of the reasons that his poems are Keatsian in nature. In the poems of Siegfried Sassoon we can find that subject is objectified and object is subjectified. This is the reason that his poems are deeper in meaning. Osbert Sitwell is another war poet who was a satirist. In his poems he has tried to show us the cruelties and stupidity of the war. Poems of war depicted horror and cruelty of war. Satires were used in such poems only to make the readers aware of war and war like situations. Battlefield full of blood, mutilated soldiers and corrupt politicians were exposed through war poems. The concept of nationalism and need of war to safeguard the nation is the central idea in some poems. It is noteworthy to find that such ideas were also criticized by poets like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. In 1914 when First World War was in progress it was thought that poets were sitting somewhere. They were busy in collecting information of the war by different sources. Some scholars and critics argue that it was not war poetry because at the same time there were few soldiers who were fighting in the battlefield and after the battle they were writing poems to satisfy their own needs. They were the actual war poets or we may say soldier poets2. The consequences of such kind of writings were remarkable. Several young men were inspired from war poems and they decided to join the army so that they can also experience and cherish nationalism. Thus there mixed feelings of the war. Initially it was a subject of celebration but later the war was criticized as it engulfed lives. The horrors and pangs of war appealed to the masses through war poetry. It is interesting to note that poems of war were written in a light mood by poets initially but later it became a very serious issue. Poets like Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Nicholas, Robert Graves, Charles Sorely and others were soldiers. They knew exactly what happened in the battlefield. This is one of the reasons that these war poets are widely read and circulated in the world. It has already been mentioned that war was the subject of celebration because soldiers were tied by the knots of patriotism. Poets like Rudyard Kipling, Robert Bridges and others celebrated war by writing their poems comfortably at their home. Poems like ‘Song of the Soldiers’ written by Thomas Hardy and ‘For All we have and Are’ by Rudyard Kipling celebrates the concept of patriotism. The point I want to make here is that patriotism was the tool to prepare the ground of battlefield. It is also noteworthy that poets who had no experiences of war have written good war poems but Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas were the poets who fought for their nation and died as proud soldiers. The ideologies of Rupert Brooke inspired several young writers of the world. He was like a “young Apollo”3. Although he is one of the most famous war poets but we will be surprised to know that he has not written many poems. In his poems we can witness his love for English soil. He was a true soldier and a lucid poet who believed that life should not be long but meaningful. His war poems are dignified4 because he tried appealing to his readers that war cannot be a solution but it has always been a problem to humankind. Peter Westland5 has remarked about Rupert Brooke that he has not written much about war yet he is known as a war poet. He was a poet who will never be lost in pages of history because he sparkles like pearl. Thus, it can also be said that he is universal and can be found anywhere in war like situation. His war sonnets are unique and present a true picture of the battlefield. Initially he considered the war as a revival in 1914 because he was not aware of the consequences of the war. It is correct that he was a true soldier who was not afraid of the war but later he understood that it was a never ending process and it always needs blood to carry on. He was born in 1887 at Rugby. He was educated at Cambridge, King’s College. He has studied Webster and Elizabethan Drama closely. This is one of the reasons that he was awarded Fellowship at King’s College. He had impressive talents along with good physical appearance. In one of his sonnets ‘Peace’ he has stated that he is soldier and he will die soon in the battlefield. It means that he was far ahead of his contemporaries who knew the reaction of every action. There is a sense of realism in his writings. This is one of the reasons that love to read poets like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. There are certain parallels in both these poets. We can also say that in all the war poets we can find certain parallels like death is the common theme. As for example in all the five war sonnets of Rupert Brooke we can find that death is the ultimate end of war. Horrors and pangs of war is the central theme of war poets. In case of Siegfried Sassoon we can find that he was born in 1886 at Matefield, Kent. He belonged to a wealthy family.
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 at Matefield. He belonged to a well to do family. He was ill in his childhood and it is one of the reasons that he could not continue his college education. Later, he went to London by the help of Edward Marsh who was his well wisher and a true family friend. Eventually he entered into military services and met Rupert Brooke. During his service he was deputed at several places. In 1915, he visited France and met Robert Graves. In The Old Huntsman there is a record of his early poems. Before coming to the military services he had hardly any ideas of war. After his enlistment to the military services he actively participated in various wars. It has already been stated that Sassoon belonged to a well to do family. His father was a rich man but Sassoon never took advantage of his family connections. He was influenced by scholars like Edward Marsh and Edmund Goose. Michael Thorpe has remarked that Sassoon loved reading Pre-Raphaelite poets like Swinburne. He also liked the writings of Lionel Johnson, Edward Fitzgerald and others. Scholars and critics may argue that we cannot find any similar themes of Swinburne in the writings of Sassoon yet he was influenced by him. It is interesting to note that he was heavily influenced by the intonation used by Swinburne in his poems. There is hardly any love theme in his poems but we can find escapism similar to Pre Raphaelites in the poems of Sassoon. However, the kind of escapism used by Sassoon differs slightly in comparison to Pre Raphaelites. Sassoon uses it to protest against the prevailing situations. It is not like the ideal love depicted by Rossetti or the ideal socialism depicted by Morris but it is inseparable to nature. We may say that Sassoon uses escapism to follow the path of nature. He thinks that he is a part of nature and he should never support any destruction in any form. This is one of the reasons that he condemns war and war like situations. He is man who believes that humanism is similar to Mother Nature. In Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man he clearly states that he likes solitude. It further guides him to create his poems. It can be one of the reasons that he successfully develops his own style of writing. The earlier poems written by Sassoon were Georgian in nature. In Modern poetry and the Tradition Cleanth Brooks has written that Sassoon as a young man was excited to go to the battlefield but with the advancement of time he understood that it was not nobler to fight6. In the poem ‘France’, Sassoon writes that soldiers who fight for their motherland are fortunate enough to be crowned with clouds and landscapes. In ‘To Victory’ he states that he likes nature the most because silent nature is far from guns and horrors of war. Thus, it becomes evident that in his initial poems he tries to glorify the war but in the later poems he has gained enough experience to condemn the war and war like situations. There are certain parallels in the poems written by Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. We can find similar style of writing and it seems that Sassoon copies the ideas and styles of Brooke’s. After the death of his younger brother Sassoon felt broken. He loved his brother and he tries to call him back in ‘To My Brother’. This poem reveals symbolically the courage of a soldier who dies in war. Several critics and scholars have made their point that soldiers never die but they move in the battlefield even after death because battles are never silent although it seems that the war is over. The best example of it can be seen in the poem The Dragon and the Undying’ written by Sassoon. In this poem he has written that soldiers who die in the battlefield wander there even after their death. They are always ready to fight because their body can die but their spirits are always alive to chant the streams of war.
Let us come to the understanding of Wilfred Owen about war. He was born in 1893 at Plas Wilmot Oswestry. He was a kind of poet who never supported war. He never considered the ideas of war as noble because he believed in an egalitarian society. He was enlisted in the army but he condemned war. In the early days of his childhood he was supported by his mother’s father but later his father got a job as a station master. It is interesting to note that Wilfred Owen liked science and music. It was his area of interest but his contemporary culture was limited because of his little social contacts. He belonged to a lower middle class family and he started writing poetry because it appealed to his senses. Later it became his habit and people started following him. In the initial days of his career as a poet he used to write on nature. Apart from being a writer he was also a voracious reader and Coleridge noticed his art of writing. Bushnell A. has remarked that Owen was influenced by poets like Coleridge. One of his best poetic creations ‘Strange Meeting’ seems to be influenced from Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’7. When Owen was studying in school he used to read the poems of John Keats. Thus, it becomes evident that he was a great admirer of poets like John Keats. The sensuousness and love for nature appealed to his senses. This can be one of the reasons that he was also very close to nature. Owen was heavily influenced by the perfection of John Keats. Scholars and critics have argued that Owen has tried to copy such kind of perfection in most of his poems. His artistic conscience was an admixture of reason and passion. We may say that reason and passion are contradictory to each other but we should understand that Wilfred Owen was not a true representative of Romanticism. He loved the way John Keats wrote but he mixed such feelings with his own sensibilities. He was also a true admirer of Coleridge but he never tried to copy his artistic genius. However, there are certain romantic elements in his poems but it is his own perception and artistic beauty. There are certain parallels between the poems of John Keats and Wilfred Owen. Both of them were in search of rest and peace. This is one of the reasons that both of them were in search of perfection which could be found nowhere. It is an illusion to both of them because they were not contented or satisfied in their own life. This can be one of the reasons that Owen in ‘A Farewell’ has tried to show us a soldier who is wounded. He is waiting for his final destiny where his mouth is open and it has been compared to the setting sun. This kind of Keatsian influence on a war poet like Wilfred Owen is unique in itself. In another poem entitled ‘Exposure’ he has tried to portray the sound and vision of war. We will be surprised to know that later in his life Owen has also been influenced by Shelley. His maturity is reflected in his interest in the ‘Revolt of Islam’ written by Shelley. In the later poems of Wilfred Owen we can find poetic collage Of Keats and Coleridge. This is the reason that among war poets Wilfred Owen has attained a great height because he captured the theme of war in detail in almost all of his poems. Romantic poets like Shelley never supported the ideas of war and Wilfred Owen was aware of it. Shelley was the follower of truth, love and non violence. He used to defeat negative forces with love and dormant resistance8. His believe in love was active until his life and he considered human being as one of the best creatures of God. Owen also enjoyed reading Ruskin and it brought him closer to geology and Science along with astronomy. Wilfred Owen was a versatile genius. He has inherited adventurous spirit from his father and lucidity of nature from his mother. Thus, we may say that his individuality is the product of heredity and environment. It was the major concept of naturalism propounded by Emile Zola. It has already been stated that Owen was heavily influenced by Romantic poets like Coleridge, John Keats and Shelley. Thus, he had a mixed feeling of free imagination and realism. War was inevitable and thus war like situation was the real image of the early twentieth century. It never appealed to Owen and it is one of the reasons that he has never tried to celebrate war in spite of being a soldier. Critics and scholars may argue that he was not a good soldier but it cannot be denied that he was a good poet and a good human being. When he visited Broxton with his mother he started writing poetry. It is noteworthy to find that during that time he was merely a child of ten years. His mother used to inspire him by telling him that he must listen to his heart. It brought clarity in his mind and in place of playing games he used to read and write. He knew the art of reading but his mother used to read for him because she was trying to convince him that reading makes a man insightful.9 Owen wanted to write professionally by becoming a poet but his parents had different opinion for him. Eventually after various incidents he was enlisted in the military services. In 1914 when it became clear that war was almost inevitable then at that time Owen was rendering his services as a private tutor. He was enlisted in military services in 1915. When he visited the hospital he understood that war was never a subject of celebration. He has seen the true colours of war. Harold Owen, younger brother of Wilfred Owen has remarked that his brother never liked war. When war between England and Germany was declared then Owen was not thinking about patriotism. He was thinking about preserving his poetry.10 he never liked military services but he was forced into it dy different circumstances. It was interesting to note that he was in dilemma that he should fight for nation or quit from the army? He later chose to fight for the nation because it was morally right for him. He understood that in military services there is hardly any place for emotion and personal choices.11 in 1916, he was sent at the Manchester Regiment. In ‘Poetry of the First World War’ it has been written by J.M.Gregson that Wilfred Owen was excited like Rupert Brooke and this can be one of the reasons that professionally he greeted the war. Readers and scholars may argue that there was hardly any option left to Wilfred Owen. In the early poems of Wilfred Owen solitude is in dominance. It becomes clear in the poems like ‘The Unreturning’. The central idea of death and isolation is present in this poem. Similar theme can also be seen in ‘Shadwell Stair’. In this poem the innocence of the poet is reflected through the ghost. The poet declares in the first few lines that he is the ghost of innocence. In another poem ‘Ballad of Purchase Moneys’ readers can witness the heroism of a boy that is sacrificial in nature. This kind of heroism is sacrificial because nationalism and love for the country needs sacrifices. This is one of the reasons that war poems and war poets often expressed love for the motherland. The theme of nature and natural beauty can also be seen in the poems of Owen.
Among war poets Sir Osbert Sitwell is also expressive in nature. He is different from Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in various aspects. He was brought up in Edwardian England in a rich family. His family background helped him a lot in shaping his personality. He developed unique contrasting features because of his social contacts. He was an artist and his insights and visions were very clear from beginning. His writings reflect clarity of his thought. He was never in dilemma that what to do in life because he was a man who enjoyed his freedom. Edith Sitwell and Sacheverell Sitwell were his sister and brother. They have influenced him a lot. Roger Fulford has remarked about Sir Osbert Sitwell that by birth, education and nature he represented the period of pre war era12. In school he was a brilliant student. It is interesting to note that he also got enlisted in military services. There are certain parallels between Wilfred Owen and Sir Osbert Sitwell. Both of them were in army but none of them wanted to join army because they never tried to cherish the ideas of war. They loved their nation but they never supported militant nationalism. They believed that war cannot be a solution of any dispute. This is one of the reasons that at the time of war they tried to preserve their writings. It was the most valuable treasure to them. Both of these poets have influenced several young poets of the world. It is noteworthy to find that both of these poets have used contrasting symbols in their poems. These symbols and images appeal to the masses because they are easy to understand. Sir Osbert Sitwell and Wilfred Owen were not excited at the declaration of the war. They were not coward but anxious because they represented humanity. Scholars and critics may argue that they lacked the military spirit and thus they were not true soldiers. It is correct that they never liked and supported war but it cannot be denied that they loved their nation. They were never scared of war because they were frontline warriors but they always cherished the ideas of peace and harmony. They were worried because they have lost their friends in the war. Later Sir Osbert Sitwell decided to follow his own instincts and thus he became a poet of fine sensibilities. He wrote poems in free time. John Pearson has remarked about Sir Osbert Sitwell that the artistic instinct and some mixed feelings drove him to compose “Babel”13. By the advice of his sister Edith, the poet thought to publish this poem. Finally it got published in London Times. We have already talked about Siegfried Sassoon. He was also a soldier but he also never liked war. Initially war was a subject of celebration for few poets but later almost all the war poets condemned war. When people were dying in war then poets were criticizing it through their poems. Critics and scholars who loved or cherished the ideas of war also agreed that on the name of nationalism killings and murders cannot be supported blindly. There was nothing to hide in war like situations. Rabindra Nath Tagore has also considered war as a subject of re assessment. He was a poet who never advocated war. He said that nationalism is good but it never gives license to anybody to hate other country. Wilfred Owen was a kind of poet who believed that poetry was in pity. He was a great soldier as well as a poet who understood the exact meaning of pity. He actively participated in the Great war and it provided him an experience full of new insights. By seeing the blood of soldiers in the battlefield he was not scared. He had seen soldiers dyeing in trenches. Scholars and critics are of the opinion that Wilfred Owen was a shell shock victim so it might be possible that he started condemning war. However, it is correct that he was a shell shock victim but later he fought like a brave soldier and died in the war. Thus, we cannot say that he condemned war because he was scared of the war. It is interesting to note that he condemned war because in thoughts he was far ahead of his contemporaries. He understood that war always needs blood so it cannot be a matter of celebration. In the war hospital he read Keats and Shelley because he loved Romantic traditions. He was very close to nature and it is one of the reasons that he understood the nature of corrupt politicians who have left the world at the gate of destruction. He was aware of war like situations and he understood the value of an egalitarian society.
- Blunden, Edmund,“War Poets,1914-18”, writers and their work series, London 1953, p.13
- Cornford, Francis, “Poetry of the First World War”,Bloomsbury,1976,p.7
- Bullough, Geoffery , “The Trend of Modern Poetry” , London, 1940, p.109.
- Westland, Peter ,“Contemporary Literature, 1880-1950”, London University Press, London, 1961, p.176
- Sassoon, Siegfried , “Modern poetry and the Tradition”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1965,p.93
- Bushnell,A, “Wilfred Owen: Poetry Rev” Vol.37, London,1946,p.7
- Owen, Harold , “Journey from Obscurity”, Vol.3, New York, 1965, p.118
- Ibid, p.122
- Sitwell, Osbert, “Osbert Sitwell work series”, Longman’s Green & Company, London, p.7
- Pearson, John, “Facades: Edith Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell”, Macmillan, London,1978, p.90